President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar in the world's youngest nation of South Sudan have been asked by international peace brokers to talk and reach a resolution by Wednesday to halt the violence that started a fortnight ago killing thousands, including civilians and children.
Peace brokers from East Africa and the Horn of Africa have told both sides to hold face-to-face talks and end the violence by Dec. 31, Agence France-Press reported.
The latest spate of violence started on Dec. 16 after Kiir accused Machar of attempting to stage a coup.
Kiir sacked Machar as vice-president in July, triggering a split in the army. The ensuing battle between those loyal to Kiir and those allied to Machar has spread to 10 states in South Sudan, a largely animist and Christian nation which gained independence about three years ago under a 2005 peace deal ending 23 years of civil war with Arab Muslim-dominated North Sudan.
"We, the government, are ready to meet even before that [the Dec. 31 deadline]," South Sudan's Vice-President James Wani Igga was quoted as saying. "It's now up to Machar to accept the ceasefire."
"Dr Riek mobilizes his... youths, up to 25,000... and wants to use them to attack the government" in the eastern state of Jonglei, where rebels allegedly allied to Machar briefly captured the regional capital Bor this month, government spokesman Michael Makuei told the newswire.
The violence in the oil-producing country is taking on an ethnic dimension and both sides are being accused of committing atrocities, according to South Sudan watchers.
According to the United Nations, thousands have been killed and more than 120,000 have fled their homes. About 63,000 of the displaced people have taken shelter in UN peacekeeping bases.
"According to information received by the UNHCR that has not been confirmed, hundreds of citizens of South Sudan have crossed the border into Sudanese territory from several border areas," a source at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Khartoum was quoted as saying Saturday.
In the city of Malakal in Upper Nile State in the northeast of South Sudan, fighting erupted on Christmas Eve, according to The Washington Post, which also reported that thousands of civilians have been displaced and scores of foreigners, including Americans, have been trapped in the region.
South Sudan is a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa.
Bodies could be seen lying along the streets of Malakal, which is close to the International borders with the Republic of Sudan and with Ethiopia.
"The bodies we saw were of kids with beers and biscuits," Caroline Opok, a U.N. employee in Malakal, was quoted as saying. "And the government was fighting them with tanks."
By the weekend, government forces had reportedly driven out the rebel troops, many of whom appeared to be drunken youths dressed in military uniforms and looting shops.
Tensions persist. "The fighting can start anytime," William Deng, who fled to the U.N. base, was quoted as saying. "The tensions are still high between the rebels and the government."
It is feared that the neighboring Khartoum government could exploit the instability in South Sudan and interfere. Many issues remain unresolved between the South and North Sudan, and the two nations have witnessed hostilities.
"It's a key town," Toby Lanzer, the deputy special representative to the U.N. mission in South Sudan, was quoted as saying, of Malakal. "For all the right reasons this is a very important place to hold onto or to take control of if you are engaged in these hostilities."